COMET SWAN, the newly discovered comet travelling through the solar system, has released a huge outburst which was visible to the unaided eye of astronomers.
Comet SWAN (C/2020 F8) was discovered on April 11 which, like Comet ATLAS was meant to, will arrive at the orbit of Mercury in late May. However, the comet has started acted strangely, leading to theories it too could be disintegrating, much like ATLAS did.
Researchers in the southern hemisphere, where SWAN is visible too, noticed a huge blast from the comet with the space rock leaving a trail of debris in its wake.
Karl Battams of the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC, said the comet could be fragmenting, or it could just be a volatile comet.
He told Space Weather: “Outbursts do not necessarily imply fragmentation, and ground-based images are not yet showing evidence of a breakup.
“This could just be a particularly feisty and volatile comet.
“It would not surprise me at all to see another outburst – maybe several – in the coming weeks as it closes in on the sun later this month.”
Comet SWAN will continue to make its way closer to Earth.
On May 12, it will be its closest, being just 0.56 astronomical units from Earth – roughly half the distance between the Sun and our planet.
Space Weather said: “If current trends continue, the comet will brighten to third magnitude or better, similar to the stars of the Pleiades.
“Observers in the southern hemisphere will have little trouble seeing it as it glides through the constellation Pisces.”
Comet SWAN was first discovered by Michael Mattiazzo of Swan Hill, Victoria, Australia, when he was analysing data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) SWAN instrument – hence the name.
SWAN’s job is to scan the solar system for hydrogen, suggesting Comet SWAN is emitting a lot of hydrogen at the moment.
However, experts are unsure if the comet will remain until May 12.
Mr Battams, who correctly predicted the demise of Comet ATLAS, believes this scenario is unlikely.
He said: “I doubt that the comet will maintain its current impressive appearance, and will quite possibly fade away soon.
“But we’ve only been viewing it for a couple of days, so no one knows.”
Astronomers had hoped Comet ATLAS could hold out until it got close enough to the Sun so it would be as visible in the night sky as Venus, which looks like a bright star.
However, the latest observations have revealed it has begun to fragment.
Astronomers believed it was crumbling apart as its brightness began to dip, which suggested it was not as big as it once was.
Researchers from the Lulin One-meter Telescope in Taiwan confirmed it was falling apart, with one fragment 2,112 miles (3,400km) ahead of the trailing pair.